Boxing often brings tragedy, but it also brings triumph

JOHANNESBURG - Eight years ago Herbert Nkabiti travelled to South Africa from Botswana with little more than great hope in his heart.

A decorated amateur boxer who won silver at the African Games in Algiers a decade ago, he turned professional in Johannesburg. He won his first fight by knockout, a trend that would continue through his first 10 bouts. In boxing parlance, he was on a roll. And then he ran into the powerful fists of Boitshepo Mandawe, a fighter who was fated to be murdered in a Soweto shebeen two years ago. Last year, having suffered another defeat, Nkabiti packed it in.

But as happens so often in boxing, he hit upon hard times. He had a new baby to feed, but he had no work. So he went back to what he knew best. Last Friday, he fought Willis Baloyi in the unfashionable environs of working class Brakpan. Nkabiti was knocked out by a vicious uppercut and was in some distress when an ambulance rushed him to hospital. Hours later, he was dead.

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Anthony Joshua celebrates with trainer Robert McCracken (second from left) and his corner after beating Wladimir Klitscho. Photo: Andrew Couldridge/ReutersHerbert Nkabiti passed away after the bout. Photo: Yobe ShongaNick ‘Mthakathi’ Durandt died in a motorcycle accident on Friday. Photo: Nhlanhla Phillips, Independent Media

The event caused barely a ripple in the news cycle. Nkabiti fought on the margins and hadn’t cracked the big time. His death was seen as another casualty of an often violent sport where injury and, yes, sometimes even fatal injury, is an occupational hazard.

Yet his death has been catastrophic for his young wife, who must now raise their four-month-old daughter on her own, and the community of Kanye, where he lived.

Their hero is dead, taken far too soon.

If that was a bad body blow for local boxing, it was preceded by the death in a bike accident of Nick Durandt, the colourful and controversial boxing trainer. Durandt was laid to rest on Friday, but only after great tributes had been paid to him by a range of prominent people.

Durandt was nothing less than a walking contradiction. He could be angry and sullen and foul-mouthed, but he was big-hearted and generous too. He cursed and slapped his boxers, but he adored them and would kiss them seconds before they fought. They loved him, too, as was evident in the outpouring of grief following word of his death.

In one of the last meaningful conversations I had with him, he predicted that Tyson Fury would handle Wladimir Klitschko in their heavyweight title fight.

“Fury’s a nut job with two left feet,” I told him, dismissing his prediction.

Durandt was bang on the money. He would no doubt have picked Anthony Joshua over Klitschko too. The Briton was Durandt’s type of fighter: big, strong, hard-working and hard-hitting.

Durandt had a hand in Hasim Rahman’s shock title win over Lennox Lewis in South Africa 16 years ago, so he knew what made an elite-level heavyweight tick. Despite all his success, though, he never discovered the Holy Grail: a black African heavyweight champion. For a while Courage Tshabalala had a tremendous winning run under Durandt, but he was found out in America and soon drifted out of the sport.

Osborne Machimana had potential, but he never found a buffet he didn’t like, a habit sharply at odds for anyone with designs on a heavyweight title. He knocked out a faded Corrie Sanders, but that’s the closest he got to heavyweight fame.

If boxing often brings tragedy, it also brings supreme triumph. Joshua’s knockout of Klitschko marked the coronation of a new king and perhaps also a reawakening of the division.

Joshua is the complete package, from his skill and power down to his eloquence and dignified manner that is unlike so many other boxers.

He’s what marketers call “box office”; a can’t-miss hero who will make tons of cash while engaging in thrilling fights. The Klitschko fight represented a severe gut-check, and the magnificent Joshua passed the test.

As good as he already is, he’s a work in progress and will get even better. Even so, there isn’t a heavyweight in the world who could live with him. The moment he pulls the trigger against the over-rated Fury, it would be lights out. So too Deontay Wilder, Luis Ortiz or Joe Parker.

Even as we mourn our own heroes, it’s time to celebrate another.

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